July 31, 2018

Revisiting: "That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain"

For the final entry of July, I'd like to open a discussion that has been a long time coming and revisit an article that I wrote for the Genesee Country Village & Museum in 2017, titled: That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain.

Civilian refugees fleeing the town,
Mumford Reenactment, 2017
Photograph by Deborah Scott
(Used with permission)

In my last blog post, Battles, Bonnets & the Ball, I recounted all of the highlights of another grand Civil War weekend, the annual Mumford event; however, one important experience went unmentioned.  This particularly memorable moment, though quite familiar and almost a daily occurrence (both in my "real" life and when interpreting in historical costume), left me thinking and ready to break my silence on what may be a long, controversial topic (at least on this blog).

Sewing during the Mumford Reenactment, 2018
Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

The situation happened like this:  A gentleman visitor entered the millinery shop where I was assisting the proprietress with her interpretation and sewing in company.  He exchanged the usual pleasantries with all of us in the room, than directly asked me what I figured was whether or not I had participated in the event previously.  The answer was "yes," of course, this was my fifth year as an employee, and I grew up attending the annual reenactment.  That's when the conversation became uncomfortable.  Apparently, I misunderstood the nature of his first and then subsequent inquiries, which amounted to an adamant belief that neither my ancestors, nor I, would or should have been there - referring to both the Civil War and its reenactment.

Based on all of the new, incredible research available today, that statement is unknowing and simply untrue.  Several further exchanges were made, and any attempts to divert the conversation were unsuccessful.  In the past, my standard, go-to response has been to acknowledge the visitor's unique understandings, and say something about honoring American history by interpreting it, even if the historical circumstances and specific, geographical locations may not have always allowed.  In this case though, it was entirely appropriate to justify my participation by mentioning the many contributions of the Chinese to both sides of the Civil War and in civilian life.  Unfortunately, these were dismissed as this gentleman visitor was set in his understandings that the Chinese would have only worked on the railroads.  (I'd like to point out here that there was never any mention or knowing of my particular ethnicity, which does happen to be Chinese.)

Corporal Joseph Pierce
14th Connecticut Infantry, Company F
Image in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

While I am used to fielding comments - which range from the simply curious like "where are you from?" or "where were you born?" to pointed, racially-charged comments about "my people" not being historically accurate or represented, and me, because of my ethnicity, not being welcome in living history - the conversation that day caught me off guard.  I felt guilty for being a little flustered, singled out in a room full of other costumed interpreters and reenactors, and I admit to being a bit out of practice (having moved to the interpretation office for the past few seasons, rather than out in the village in costume every day).

There is good in this though, and it came in the form of a blog post last year and the chance to respond to a great unknowing with some research.  After several seasons of similar, uncomfortable interactions, especially prominent during the Mumford or any reenactment, I was questioning my place in living history and whether "my people," specifically the Chinese, were present during the American Civil War.  Much to my surprise, the amount of information that I uncovered in an initial search floored me.  Since then, the discovery has given me such validation and a mission to make sure "that these dead shall not have died in vain," and that their contributions may be better known.  Words still cannot describe how much it meant to see that article go live back then - and I wholeheartedly thank Deanna Berkemeier and GCV&M for the opportunity - and its message continues to be relevant now. 

So, to my gentleman visitor from the past weekend, I'm not upset.  Rather, I'm reminded of a "great task remaining before us" - to continue researching (I've discovered so much more since the original article), educating and making our living history today as diverse as it was back then.  And, I'd like another chance to answer your questions about "my people" and my presence at that event with this:

Article published July 14, 2017

on the Genesee Country Village & Museum Blog

The following excerpt is from my section, "The Chinese in the Civil War," and discusses a number of known Union and Confederate soldiers:

"To the surprise of most Americans today, 58 Chinese men, out of a total of 200 identified as living on the East Coast at the start of the war, voluntarily enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies to fight for the same causes as their black and white compatriots.  Many hoped for legitimacy and citizenship in exchange for loyalty and service to a country they considered their own.  Accounts of valiant efforts in many major battles as well as service records exist, showing that three Chinese soldiers were even promoted to corporals in all white units.  This included both Corporal Joseph Pierce of the 14th Connecticut regiment, who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge, and Corporal John Tommy of the 70th New York regiment, Co. D, who also fought at Gettysburg and lost all four limbs in the crossfire.  

Clipping from The Adams Sentinel, page 5
June 30, 1863 Gettysburg, PA 

"Eager for liberation, some of the Chinese enslaved through the Pacific slave trade, much like their African American counterparts, hungered for a better life and enlisted in the Union army.  Thomas Sylvanus, or Ah Yee Way, escaped from slavery in Baltimore, fought at Gettysburg and survived a nine-month incarceration at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp.  Woo Hong Neok, one of the few Chinese granted citizenship before the war, also identified with the Union cause.  He enlisted with the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry, Co. I, stating that he 'volunteered on June 29, 1863 in spite of the advice of my Lancaster friends against it, for I had felt that the North was right in opposing slavery.  My friends thought I should not join the militia and risk my life in war, for my own people and family were in China and I had neither property nor family in America whose defense might serve as an excuse for my volunteering' (Shirk).   
"At the same time, at least five Chinese Americans have been identified by name as sympathizers of the Confederate cause.  Most famously, cousins Christopher and Stephen Bunker, the sons of prosperous slave-owning farmers in North Carolina, fought to protect their family’s interests, as well as Henry William Kwan of the 12th Virginia Battalion of Light Artillery, Co. B.  There are even records of Chinese enlisted with the Avegno Zouaves Company I of the 14th Louisiana Infantry (Kwok).   
"Other important roles included an unidentified number of Chinese sailors, stewards and cooks serving in the Union navy during the blockades of Southern ports.  Several names include Thomas Smith, a sailor listed onboard the USS Potomac, John Akomb, a steward on a gunboat, and William Hand, the first Asian American to enlist in the US Navy in 1863.  Unfortunately, historians will never know an exact number of the Chinese in the American Civil War, but their collective contributions to the war efforts were unarguably 'far above our poor power to add or detract'" (Lincoln).  
- "The Chinese in the Civil War,"
from "That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain,"
Genesee Country Village & Museum Blog

Today I honor both my Chinese and American heritages among
the historical interpreters at the Genesee Country Village & Museum
(Photograph courtesy of Marisa C.)

Works Cited

  • Kwok, Gordon. "Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War." Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War, 18 Jan. 2009, sites.google.com/site/accsacw/. Accessed 31 July 2018. 
  • Lincoln, Abraham. "The Gettysburg Address." 19 Nov. 1863. Abraham Lincoln Online, 2017, www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm. Accessed 31 July 2018. Address.
  • Shirk, Willis L., Jr. "Woo Hong Neok: A Chinese American Soldier in the Civil War." Civil War Pennsylvania 150, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 16 July 2015, pacivilwar150.com/ThroughPeople/Soldiers/WooHongNeok.html. Accessed 31 July 2018.

In addition to the "electronic monument," the Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War, the following is another fantastic, comprehensive resource:  The Blue, the Gray and the Chinese: American Civil War Participants of Chinese Descent.

July 27, 2018

Battles, Bonnets & the Ball

Last weekend for the annual Civil War Re-enactment & Encampment at the Genesee Country Village & Museum (known simply as the "Mumford" event), I had the chance to do something I never have done before...when I heard that Anna Worden Bauersmith of If I Had My Own Blue Box, a prolific author & period straw milliner extraordinaire, was looking for a shop assistant, I jumped at the opportunity!  

Insurance office turned millinery shop for the Civil War Weekend

The Millinery Shop

Anna Worden Bauersmith is Genesee Country's local celebrity, and beyond all the fame, she's one of the nicest, most talented and well researched people that I know.  For several select events during the museum season, Anna offers something really special and unique to the experience of village visitors and participants alike by interpreting and demonstrating the art of period millinery.  This past weekend, she set up shop in what is usually the insurance office, transforming the space into a well-stocked millinery shop.   

Boxes of fine ribbons and accessories galore lined the mantle and filled the nearby shelf: 

Four tables were set up to display a wide sampling of fashionable bonnets and hats, evening headdresses, and more practical corded sunbonnets and winter hoods:  (Do see her blog post on the event's millinery for specifics, here: Adding New Millinery to My Etsy Shop

Special this year were several woven straw examples
& the highly fashionable Mousquetaire hat

There was even a mourning display featuring a woven straw bonnet (left), decorated straw hat (right), quilted hood trimmed in mink (top), various ribbons and pinked, black silk trim samples (bottom):  

All together, the display and the entire shop, discussed in more detail in the Before and After blog post, looked spectacular!  It would be worth attending the event just to see everything and to meet Anna in person.  In fact, this year marked her personal, 20th anniversary of the Civil War event - and I was beyond thrilled to celebrate with her. 

Here's a picture of the before:

From insurance office...
Notice Mr. Stowe busy at work in the back room.

And a view of the after:

...To millinery shop!

Saturday, June 21st

As for the running of the shop, the first day was definitely the warmer of the two in temperature.  Still a pleasant day, the morning and afternoon flew by between sewing and interesting conversations.  There was a steady stream of visitors, though we were never really overwhelmed. 

All three of us at work.
(Photograph courtesy of Judy J.)

One of the greatest perks of assisting in the shop was that it was a favorite stop for many familiar and new friends!  I hadn't seen many of these reenactors since last year's event, and enjoyed meeting others in person for the first time.

Coming in as customers, leaving as friends.
It was also interesting to watch potential customers try on the various hats and bonnets, seeing which styles and colors flattered the wearer best.  There's certainly an art to both the making and wearing of millinery!

Speaking of which, it was so exciting to see one of the straw bonnet forms being finished from the lining to the curtain and ties:

Basting silk and net together for the bonnet bavolet.

I worked off and on a double ruffle cap all weekend...still have to finish whipping the frills and adding any trimmings:

A rare picture of me actually sewing!
(Thanks Judy J.)

Something else that I also really look forward to every Civil War event is the evening dance.  There's nothing like getting all dressed up and having your hair styled by a good friend.  Allison was so kind to assist me this year, and I continue to be amazed by her historical hair styling skills!

Historical hair styling chain.

Obligatory hair photo - thanks Allison!

I joined my friends and the Flint Hill Dance group for some pictures before the ball.  Stephen orchestrated his annual group shot on the Livingston-Backus Porch, taking such care to pose us all so elegantly for a tintype: 

The modern color picture.
The 20-second exposure by the one and only Michael Rhodes!

And, a picture with Allison!  We were half joking that this is proof that we actually know one another as we're usually on opposite ends of the camera...She looked absolutely stunning in that color and fabric! 

(Photograph courtesy of Stephen S.)

After dancing the night away, I retired to the Foster-Tufts House, very happily out of the rain.  It poured all night.  

Sunday, June 22nd

The next morning it was back to the shop for another day of sewing, interpreting and pleasant conversations.  All of the rain the night before made for a comfortable day, and the visitors really responded to the display and engaged with us, which made all of the efforts worthwhile.   

Taking care of business, day two in the millinery shop.
(Photograph by Trudy W., via Facebook)

Much like the day before, many of our friends, both new and familiar, stopped in to say hello and conduct business with the proprietress.  At one point, I had to giggle as life continued as if nothing was amiss while the village battle raged outside! 

Company during the village's afternoon battle.

And that concludes this Civil War weekend report on what was one of the greatest highlights of the 2018 museum season!  I simply cannot thank Anna enough for taking me on as her millinery shop assistant!  'Till the next time... 

July 13, 2018

Romantic Era Long Stays

"I am unwilling to condemn altogether an article of dress so universally worn as stays, corsets, or whatever other name may be given to the stiff casing that is employed to compress the upper parts of the body...I admit most readily that stays sometimes add to the elegance of the shape, but if this is done at the hazard of injuring the health, the sacrifice will be allowed to be too great"
- "Stays and Corsets," page 175
The Duties of a Lady's Maid by J. Bulcock, 1825 

Romantic Era Undergarments:
A shift, long stays & sleeve plumpers

Today's blog post is all about the construction and completed project pictures of my long, corded Romantic Era stays.  A project over two years in the making, these stays were finished just in time for the fashion show at the Bement-Billings Farmstead Museum and will be used as an example in future historic fashion presentations.  Along with a new, me-made shift, sleeve plumpers and corded petticoat, which was handmade by Michelle Forbes of Hand Stiches in Time on Etsy, I am thrilled to finally have a complete set of 1830s undergarments!

Historical Inspiration

As with any other sewing project, I turned to extant examples, fashion plates and other period resources for inspiration.  

I've always admired this set of c.1830-1835 undergarments
from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Costume Collection
(Image source: LACMA)

My version of 1830s undergarments

My diagonal cording design was greatly influenced by this extant example of cream cotton, corded stays from 1828:  Unfortunately, the image came from Pinterest without an original source!   

Corded stays, c.1828
(Image via: Pinterest)

As well as this beautiful version from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:

Women's stays, c.1820s
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(Image source: MFA, 99.664.34

And this one from my university's collection featuring hand stitched cording in green thread, leaf motifs and bone grommets:

Corset, late 1820s
Kent State University Museum
(Image source: KSU, 2011.12.37)

I chose to stitch over my grommets with pearled cotton floss to simulate the look of bone or ivory eyelets after these fantastic examples from Augusta Auctions: 

Corded cotton corset, c.1825-1830
with 9 pairs of ivory eyelets for back lacing
(Image source: Augusta Auctions, Lot 243)

I love the cording and bone eyelets on this corset, c.1800-1825
(Image source: Augusta Auctions, Lot 578)

Additional images and extant examples of early corded stays can be found on my 19th Century Undergarments Pinterest Board.  

Construction Details 

For my long stays, I chose a white cotton twill for the outer layer and a natural cotton drill for the inner layer.  The pattern was a combination of views A and B from the Laughing Moon Pattern #115 with a few alterations and a cording design based on the originals above.  The cording itself is the popular Sugar'n Cream cotton crochet yarn.  

Long stays in progress

To cord the stays, I first drew the cording channels and then machine stitched them.  Using a tapestry needle and pliers, I pulled the crochet yarn through each channel, leaving short tails at the end to gently ease inside.  In the future, I recommend laying the cording in and using a zipper foot or hand stitching the channels, rather than adding the cording afterwards...doing so will save your needles, hands and sanity!

Cording channels in progress

Along with the cording, four flat steel bones from Corset Making Supplies and a handmade, wooden busk from Redthreaded on Etsy provide shaping and support.  

Handmade, hardwood busk from Redthreaded on Etsy

I thought about hand stitching the eyelets, but decided against it as I had already used a machine on the cording channels and knew the stays were destined for fashion program use (rather than personal wear).  Also, metal grommets have been used in corsets since 1828, according to Norah Waugh in Corsets and Crinolines, so I didn't feel too bad or anachronistic about my choice.  

Later, I ended up stitching over each grommet with pearled cotton floss to simulate the look of ivory or bone eyelets.  If you have of a modern source or equivalent for either today, I'd love to know in the comments below! 

Binding and grommets and flossing, oh my!

The last step was to bind the straps, top and bottom edges.  For the binding, I cut and pressed bias strips from the outer cotton twill material and hand stitched them in place.  All of the edges were whip stitched down, except the area across the busk pocket, which was basted to allow for easy access and removal of the busk.  And now, it's time for pictures!

Completed Project Pictures 

Corded long stays - complete!



Exterior view.

Interior view.

Left side.

Right side.

Front cording.

Back grommet flossing, outside.

Back grommet flossing, inside.

Binding and grommets for the straps.

Binding, exterior detail shot.

Binding, interior detail shot.

Shoulder straps, inside and outside.

A complete set of 1830s undergarments! 

Thanks for reading!

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